I’ve spent the weekend out in the cold, and as I sit here sipping a glass of hot water with a wedge of lemon, the song that’s been stuck in my head for the past few months returns yet again to mind. Unexpectedly, yet somehow logically, the taste of this citron chaud cold cure I first learned from a Parisian friend of mine has my ears ringing with “Un zeste de citron / Inceste de citron,” provisional titles for the song Serge (and Charlotte) Gainsbourg published some twenty-four years ago as “Lemon Incest.” I can already hear you saying, “Wow, it doesn’t take much…” but no, my mind isn’t always in the gutter—or, if it is, at least it’s in an artistic way. The material on Serge Gainsbourg—his discography, filmography, biography, bibliography, and various other -ographies of all sorts—is inexhaustible. Equally inexhaustible is my ability to listen to this particular song over and over and over; though this may be reason to worry—as if I needed yet another—I’ve decided my fascination with it is worth investigating for what it may have to say about the creative process (pun intended … and no, I didn’t say procreative process!).
I first heard Serge’s mellifluous voice flowing from the stereo in the apartment of a friend of a friend (merci, Elise); I’d just moved to New York—literally the day before—and the tracks on Couleur Café, a posthumous compilation expanding upon the eponymous 1964 EP, intrigued and disoriented me. Where did this music come from, Africa? French Guiana? France proper? But soon this city began its inexorable take-over of my life, and my memory of those beats ceded to more pressing questions: where am I, where have I come from, and just where do I want to go? All those questions most people ask themselves soon after arrival here. But then Serge—Gainsbourg père, one might call him, given his love of literature and painting, as well as the creative enterprises many of his family members have also undertaken—came back with a vengeance.
I See New York, New York U.S.A. (Oh, c’est haut!)
Upon moving here I had a brief stint in a bookshop. The pay was miserable, but never since my childhood evenings at the library had I been able to spend so much calm time totally surrounded by books. One day I came across book with sans serif pink and purple lettering and what looked to be a reclining nude—but male, smoking, and photographed rather than painted—on the cover. The subtitle of Sylvie Simmons’s biography Serge Gainsbourg: A Fistful of Gitanes said it all, and periodically over the next eight years I enquired about the book whenever I found myself in a bookstore: all had carried it at some point in the past, none had it in stock. This September I finally got lucky, and delved right into the pages between its fruity covers on the subway ride home that evening. Reflecting on the fact that in many respects, for all their promise, my later cubicle gigs never gave me as much future fodder as that humble little bookstore had, I was immensely grateful for my past servitude and current freedom … and for having finally found the bio.
I had an inkling that the difficulties and triumphs of any New Yorker paled in comparison to his, but I had no idea; were he alive still, he’d have turned eighty this year. As you can guess, given his dates (1928–1991), young Lucien Ginsburg—an evidently Jewish (albeit assimilated) aspiring painter in mid-century Paris who left high school and then the École des Beaux Arts to follow in his immigrant father’s footsteps to play in various piano bars—was in for a hard time. So how can anyone sublimate the experience of being forced to wear a patch that could get you shipped off to the camps, escaping to stay with a family of hospitable strangers in a small town hours away from home, and hiding behind a different family name? By turning it all—and yourself—into art, of course. It may have taken three decades, but all that, with his experience in the military added in to boot, became a source to be raided for his 1975 album Rock Around the Bunker, complete with song titles like “Nazi Rock,” “Yellow Star,” and “S.S. in Uruguay.” The whole thing was done to music reminiscent of the fifties and sung in a very Elvis-esque tone, though before long he decided on the more radical step of splitting himself in two by creating an alter ego (more on that later). This is one approach to creativity: be yourself, have that taken away; reinvent yourself, be someone else; assume the personae of others, and make them your own. Rock around the bunker that is your ego and your life.
The idea of genius comes up repeatedly in his bio and many of his television appearances and interviews. I don’t know that Whitney Houston qualified for the epithet in the mid-eighties when he said she was a genius (see below), but in light of his considerable output, he unequivocally does. He appears not to have liked the term, or was at least too humble to ever have applied it to himself—though he had no qualms about taking credit for his ugliness, saying that “ugliness has more going for it than beauty does: it endures.” So what’s an ugly man obsessed with beauty to do? Expose everything in its own particular type of beauty. According to one interview, he gave up painting because “I wanted to have an artistic genius, and all I had was talent.” Being disinclined to settle for mediocrity, he must’ve rightly felt that in music, at least, he had more than talent going for him.
I’d twist the term genius to say it’s applicable to his work insofar as he’s captured the sense of genius loci as it might’ve been understood by the mythic Wandering Jew—the man who’s seen it all, experienced it all, lived a long time (and will, indeed, by condemnation or not, live on forever), all the while remaining somewhat excluded. In his oeuvre, Gainsbourg combines many traditions—rock, classical, jazz, reggae, rap—to create what many now consider one of the keystones of popular music; but it’s worth remembering that it wasn’t always popular, and certainly can’t be traced back to any one tradition. Instead, his genius was precisely that ability to transcend place and time (if not language), loot tradition for all it’s worth, and put out something that no one, anywhere, had ever heard before—say, a song for an innocent little girl about lollipops and how much she loves it when her lollipop’s anise-flavored sugar runs down her throat…. A tender France Gall won the 1966 Eurovision contest (an American Idol of sorts, sans painfully televised tryouts) with just such a song, and was later upset to learn that its lyrics could insinuate something other than her love of candy—could a nineteen-year-old back then really have been so pure, so much more naïve than today’s nineteen-year-old? And what’s wrong with a little insinuation when it leads to such sweet, scary, laughable clips as the one of young Gall and not-quite-so-young Gainsbourg singing that duet? One of my main criteria for whether something is art or not is how deeply it changes your idea of self and your life, and it sounds like this song changed France’s life deeply indeed. Over the years several more muses would come into his life to set the scandal bar slightly higher than it ever had been before.
Oh Daddy Oh (Daddy Oh…)
[Parental/filial advisory: this is the part with lemons and incest in it.] Gainsbourg had been married, had a child, and divorced by the time he met Jane Birkin, who had also been married, had a child, and divorced. Three years after briefly baring all at seventeen (take that, Mademoiselle Gall!) in a playful scene of Antonioni’s Blowup, Birkin found herself in Paris for a film test, and was set as heroine opposite Gainsbourg’s hero in Slogan. But I cannot go into everyone’s lengthy artistic c.v.s here: long story short, their union produced a daughter named Charlotte. She is now a singer, actress, and mother in her own right, after debuting at age thirteen (take that, Madame Birkin!) in the (in)famous “Lemon Incest,” the aforementioned 1984 duet with her father. While many people may be familiar with that song, not everyone knows that it also appeared as the last track of an album the two released together in 1986, Charlotte For Ever. My personal favorite is track three, “Oh Daddy Oh.” Aside from its catchy tune, it’s even more interesting when you hear some of the words this father puts into his daughter’s mouth:
Oh Daddy oh Daddy oh Oh Daddy oh Daddy oh
Tu te prends pour Alan Poe You take yourself for Edgar Poe
Huysmans Hoffmann et Rimbaud Huysmans Hoffmann and Rimbaud
Such references—to the Decadent author of Au Rebours (Against Nature), the poet in Offenbach’s semi-fictitious eponymous opera, and two other poets—says a lot about this particular Daddy, and his ability to make fun of himself via words penned to be tossed right back at him by his own daughter. Much as he was a musician, reading his lyrics one notes how he was equally a poet; not only that, but a poet who more often than not was capable of keeping remarkable rhyme schemes without having to break tradition, and while sustaining double, sometimes triple entendres. I suppose he left his revolutionary energies to the parts of his life that lay outside the strictly compositional precepts of verse writing—i.e., the sexual, political, and non-verbal artistic realms.
Returning briefly to Birkin’s sparklingly blonde appearance in Blowup, another curious connection emerges: the brunette friend with whom she harasses the photographer is played by none other than Gillian Hills. Three years earlier, a nineteen-year-old blonde Hills (a familiar age, n’est pas?) had sung at Serge’s side in another episode that falls well into the category of his recurring theme of young women and old men, to directly quote his 1959 song “Jeunes femmes et vieux messieurs.” See this excerpt from their 1963 “Une petite tasse d’anxieté:”
Où m’emmenez-vous ? Where are you taking me?
Etes-vous donc devenu fou ? Have you gone crazy?
Un p’tit tour au bois A little ride through the woods
Si vous n’avez pas peur de moi If you’re not afraid of me…
Mais vous vous trompez You’re mistaken,
Je n’ suis pas celle que vous croyez I’m not what you take me for…
Between the sixties and the eighties, the Vieille Canaille’s young woman counterpart is seen in her transformation, over several albums, from uncooperative lass to instigating vixen, culminating in “Lemon Incest.” For those who are ready to accuse the old man of going too far, here’s the key verse, sung by Charlotte:
L’amour que nous n’ f’rons jamais ensemble The love we’ll never make (to one another)
Est le plus rare le plus troublant Is the most rare, the most troubling
Le plus pur le plus énivrant The purest, the most intoxicating
Sublime love is all of those things, and when a thirteen-year-old tells you so, how can you denounce it? Sure, she may not yet have the necessary life experience, but compare this to Marilyn’s songs from the fifties (especially her rendition of Cole Porter’s “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” in Some Like it Hot), and tell me these women didn’t fully determine the words they sang and how they sang them.
Now for that alter ego I mentioned earlier: a lot of artists are known for their multiple personalities, be they clinically certified or not. While Gainsbourg always kept things clean within the family, he was nevertheless a very open, free man. In the late seventies the highly cultured, somehow elegant (at least melodically speaking) Gainsbourg created an alter ego named Gainsbarre; the latter was a drunken lout, a provocateurconstantly enveloped in a blue-grey cloud of smoke issuing from the ever-present Gitane in his mouth, and loved to make appearances on live national television. Simmons points out that Gainsbarre came into being shortly after Birkin walked out on him, and it was only a few short years before he was even conducting interviews with himself, the civil, suit jacket–wearing Gainsbourg delving into the depths of the sunglass-masked, leather jacket–wearing Gainsbarre to discuss his/their courage, fears, having to wear a star… in short, a philosophical conversation.
Such moments showed Gainsbarre at his best, whereas his appearances on other TV shows often proved superlative in other, less flattering ways. The two most well known occasions were what I’ll call the Houston incident and the 500-Franc incident. In the first, he and Whitney Houston were guests on a popular talk show. Less than two minutes into it, after claiming his mic doesn’t work, he abruptly interrupts Michel Drucker, the interviewer/interpreter, saying “You are not Reagan, and I am not Gorbachev, so don’t try, eh! I said I want to fu*k her.” (Mais j’ai bien dit que je voulait la baiser.) The comparison he used for that scold is curious, and reveals a certain political awareness one might think such a drunken man wouldn’t have. To run with it, there are similarities: both Gainsbourg and Gorbachev were of Russian descent; both grew up under totalitarian regimes; both help foster a disintegration of barriers and greater cultural (not to say economic) exchange on many levels. But as far as I know, Gainsbourg never did a Vuitton ad.
But he did burn money in other, less fashionable ways. In the 500-Franc incident he was seen, again on live national television, illegally taking his lighter to a bill and burning roughly the same percentage of his total earning he paid in taxes. He’s careful to specify that he knows it’s illegal but doesn’t care, and, more importantly, that his anger stems from the fact that the government funnels the money into nuclear (energy and weapons) and other such wastes, not to the poor. Remind you of any other administration?
Un Role Model
Ultimately, Lucien Ginsburg/Serge Gainsbourg/Gainsbarre/Le Vieille Canaille was not just an unparalleled artist, but he was “un role model,” a linguistically mixed concept I’ll awkwardly translate, just as so many of his lyrics lose their grace in translation: in latter-day, anglo-filled French, un role model = a role model (un bon exemple); in English (sure, add the hyphen), he’s plainly an un-role model, the sort of man you might never want your son to take after, but undeniably a role model nonetheless—perhaps a role model of the sort clearly attested to by dozens of little boys on a children's TV show dressed up as him, complete with cigarette and (hopefully faux) glass of liquor in hand, five-o'clock shadows on their sunglass-clad faces, and greyed hair singing a modified version of one of his old songs as an homage.
To round out this picture of the young painter turned musician turned activist—the real renaissance man—along comes his (semi-autobiographical) novel Evguénie Sokolov, whose protagonist is a struggling young painter suffering from a terrible, chronic case of gas. He literally takes a shitty situation and harnesses his shortcoming to create pieces he terms “gasograms,” much like the surrealists’ automatic paintings (Gainsbourg adored Dalì). In both the book and the song, young Evguénie Sokolov, and by extension his creator, echoes the idea that taboos are simply time-dependant limits he’s unfettered by and will, on the contrary, turn to his advantage where possible.
For myself, in my own creative endeavors, the points and ideas I take from Gainsbourg’s songs and life are most encouraging. Critics often have an agenda that doesn’t apply to you. Critics are often wrong; when they aren’t wrong, it behooves you to find out why. Style both matters and doesn’t matter at all. The style of the day, in particular (i.e., the twist, les ye-ye), can be nice but is often forgettable. Smoking and drinking can facilitate great works of art. Smoking and drinking can kill you. Proper grammatical construction can be a hindrance (i.e., “Je t’aime, moi non plus,” “I love you, me neither”). Amid all the hot air—intestinal and otherwise—beauty (often masked in ugliness) reigns supreme.
For months I’ve been waiting for the right time to address this adoration I harbor for Serge, and it never comes, but as my citron chaud runs low I know I have a lot more to listen to before we’re done. Now I’m just waiting for some linguist or French music and lit specialist to begin the lexicography of Gainsbourg’s multi-entendres.